Medical Family Therapy in Spiritual Care

  • Jonathan Wilson
  • Jennifer Hodgson
  • Eunicia Jones
  • Grace Wilson
Part of the Focused Issues in Family Therapy book series (FIFT)


Religious and spiritual concerns often play an important role in patients’ and their families’ healthcare decisions. As a whole, Americans are a highly religious people; 89% report believing in God, with 75% indicating that religion is “fairly” or “very” important in their lives. Almost as many (73%) say that they try hard to incorporate their faith into all areas of life (Curlin, Lantos, Roach, Sellergren, & Chin, 2005; Gallup, 2017). Medical and behavioral communities are increasingly recognizing religion and spirituality as fundamental components of health and well-being (Oh & Kim, 2014; Yanez et al., 2009). Multiple research teams have demonstrated positive effects of each on physical and mental health (e.g., George, Ellison, & Larson, 2002; Hill & Pargament, 2003; Thorensen, Harris, & Onan, 2001). And while the terms “religion” and “spirituality” share some overlapping components, and are often used interchangeably, they are formally defined in different ways (see Glossary). In healthcare, as throughout this chapter, the term “spirituality” is preferred because it better encapsulates personal experiences of faith.


Glossary of Important Terms in Spiritual Care


One who believes that nothing is known, or can be known, about a Higher Power. This person neither believes nor disbelieves in a Higher Power.


One who does not believe in a Higher Power. Some atheists may consider themselves to be spiritual, but they do not subscribe to any specific deity or organized religion.


A spiritual practice based on the teachings of the Buddha. Buddhism originated in India, and, currently, around 7% of the global population follows this faith. Its clergy consist of monks and the Dalai Lama. Key concepts in Buddhism include mindfulness, loving-kindness, and compassion. They have no rituals, gods, or priests. Enlightenment comes through meditation.

Cao Dai

Originating in Vietnam in 1926, this practice has over 6.7 million followers who believe in the existence of one Supreme Being. Cao Dai places a great deal of stress on universal concepts, such as justice, love, peace, and tolerance. It draws from other major world religions, including Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Taoism.


A nondenominational ordained member of the clergy who may work within a variety of contexts—such as hospitals, prisons, and the armed forces—to provide services focused on spiritual well-being.


A religion that is focused on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. It originated in the Middle East. Its clergy may include priests, preachers, ministers, pastors, bishops, and the Pope. Key concepts include a belief in God, his Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Ghost as divine sources of guidance for daily living. There are many sects of Christianity, including Catholic, Protestant, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Unitarian/Universalist, and hundreds of other groups and denominations.


Also known as Taoism, this philosophy originated in China about 2000 years ago. The majority of its followers live in China, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. It is associated with a belief in the supernatural and mystical and values knowledge of the paranormal (as opposed to the knowledge of the measureable). Devotees do not support political interference and/or imposition of regulations and economic restrictions. They see their diet as critical to psychological and physical well-being and encourage the practices of fasting and veganism (abstaining from animal products).


A Christian ceremony done in commemoration of the Last Supper, in which bread and wine are consecrated and consumed to symbolize the body and blood of Jesus Christ.


The process by which one party pardons the negative actions of another party. Forgiveness is an act encouraged by many religions and spiritual practices, and it is believed to lead to improved relationships with oneself and others.


In many religions, God (uppercase) is the creator of all life on earth. Depending on the religion, God may be all-knowing, ever-present, and/or the sustainer of life. In polytheistic religions, god (lowercase) is a term referring to a divine being. Religions such as Hinduism, for example, include several gods that believers may worship for different causes or occasions.


An understanding of Christian faith and life defined as love and mercy given by God freely.

Higher Power

A term that has been credited to Alcoholics Anonymous; it refers to something that is greater than ourselves. Some refer to this as God, the universe, or life forces.


A religion that predates several major world religions, including Christianity. It originated and is most widely practiced in India. Hinduism is one of the world’s largest religions, with over 1 billion followers. Its clergy are called Brahmins. Its four principal goals of life include ethics, prosperity, desires, and liberation.


A religion that professes that there is only one and incomparable God (Allah) and that Muhammad is the last messenger of God. Muslims consider the Qur’an to be the unaltered and final revelation of God. Islam originated in the Middle East. Its clergy are called prophets. Its key doctrine includes the ideas that sin is caused by forgetfulness, human weakness, and the spirit of rebellion—whereas salvation is work-oriented and achieved by submitting to the will of Allah and living a good life.

Jesus Christ

The being on whom Christianity is based. During his life, Christ’s teachings focused on the importance of repenting past wrongs and implementing values such as faith, hope, and charity in order to live peacefully on earth and after death.


An ancient religion that focuses on the teachings of God as given in the sacred text, the Torah. Originating in Mesopotamia, Judaism is one of the largest religions in the world, along with Islam and Christianity. Its clergy are called Rabbi. Its key tenet is to lead a moral life through obedience to God’s law.


Also known as Sinism or Shingyo, this religion is rooted in Korean culture. It is most commonly practiced in South Korea. Key concepts of this faith include belief in the existence of ghosts, spirits, and gods in the spirit world. Followers believe that when a person is sick, it is actually his or her soul that is sick. For example, when a person has a mental illness, he or she is beheld as a lost, possessed, or transitioned soul. There is no specific religious text or theology associated with this faith. Spiritual leaders are called “Mudangs”; they are typically females who serve as intermediaries between the gods and humans.


A person who follows the teachings of Islam.


A way in which one communicates with God or a Higher Power. Different types of prayers exist for various religious and spiritual practices.


The central sacred text of Islam, which contains revelations from Allah, Islam’s God. It is divided into chapters and verses, much like the Christian Bible.


An oftentimes structured and dogmatic way of living that occurs within established institutions designed to facilitate spirituality. It involves rules, moral guidelines, principles, and philosophies that guide beliefs and behaviors. Often, a God or Higher Power is involved in religions, from where the rules and principles originate.


Either a portion or an entire work of religious text that is considered to be sacred. Several religions have works that are considered scripture to them.


An estimated 80% of people living in Japan practice this faith. Its beginnings are thought to date back to the eighth century. Followers believe in the existence of many gods. Key concepts include impurity and purification, and rituals are performed on a regular basis to cleanse followers of sin, guilt, and bad luck.


This relatively new faith, founded during the fifteenth century, began in India. It has over 28 million followers. Key concepts include sewa (community service) and simran (remembrance of God). Sikhs think religion should be practiced by living in the world and coping with life’s everyday problems. In India, followers have included major political influencers, particularly during the Partition of India in 1947.


The dimension of a person that treats how one is making meaning or sense of his or her life experiences. Religion may comprise part of one’s spirituality, but spirituality does not necessarily have to include religious beliefs.


An ancient or medieval Indian text that teaches an idea, philosophy, or rule to consider.

The Lord’s Prayer

A prayer that Jesus Christ taught to his followers; it is still used today by many Christians for a variety of reasons.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jonathan Wilson
    • 1
  • Jennifer Hodgson
    • 2
  • Eunicia Jones
    • 2
  • Grace Wilson
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Behavioral and Social SciencesOklahoma Baptist UniversityShawneeUSA
  2. 2.Department of Human Development and Family ScienceEast Carolina UniversityGreenvilleUSA
  3. 3.Great Plains Family Medicine Residency ProgramOklahoma CityUSA

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